For most of October 2020, temperatures hovered in the low 80s in the American viticulture Grand Valley, a grape-growing region on Colorado’s western slope. But within 48 hours, the unusually warm fall quickly turned into a nightmare scenario for many farmers in the area, including Bruce Talbot, a fifth-generation fruit grower in Palisade.
On the evening of October 26, 2020, temperatures dropped to 14 degrees Fahrenheit. The next night, they dropped to 9 degrees. The sudden cold, which struck before Colorado grapes and other fruits hardened as winter approached, wiped out an estimated 70 to 100 percent of the state’s traditional European population. wine vine Wine grapes, many familiar names such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. “October 2020 hit us hard. The following year we came back with 5-10 percent of our grape harvest,” says Talbot, 63.
Most of the grapes that remained in Talbot’s vineyards after the devastating freeze were different varieties of cold-blooded hybrid grapes, which Talbot and other Colorado growers were growing as an experiment.
These hybrid grapes, created by researchers by hybridizing European varieties with native North American grapes and then selecting preferred, specific traits, are rising stars in the US wine industry. Growers love them for their ability to handle cold, resistance to disease, pests and fungi, and overall reliability in the face of changing conditions.
Climate change is messing with grapes—and thus the wine industry as a whole—in myriad ways. Higher temperatures cause grapes to ripen faster and allow insects and diseases to thrive. Increased and frequent forest fires lead to smoke pollution. Excessive drought puts great stress on the vines, which can lead to lower yields. Changes in rainfall patterns, along with higher temperatures, lead to higher levels of humidity which in turn allow mildew, fungi and other diseases to flood the vines. Grape growers are also dealing with floods, violent hailstorms, unexpected frosts and other extreme weather events associated with climate change.
“Climate change scares me,” says Kaibab Sauvage, who has been growing grapes in Colorado for more than 20 years and recently co-founded the Sauvage Spectrum Winery. “Now what was unpredictable is even more difficult to predict.”
Hybrid cars aren’t new—they go back to at least the 1860s—but as the climate and consumer tastes have evolved, their popularity has increased in recent years. In Colorado, for example, hybrids made up only 1 percent of the total wine grapes grown in the state in the early 2000s. Today, they account for 20 percent, says state vineyard scientist, Horst Caspari.
Hybrid cars are largely thanks to advances made by researchers at institutions such as the University of Minnesota, Cornell University and the University of California Davis. These scientists create new and innovative grapes to help meet farmers’ challenges, and in the process, they learn a lot about plant genetics as well. says Matt Clark, a horticultural scientist at the University of Minnesota.
Clark and colleagues conducted the bulk of their research on a 12-acre plot at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, a suburb southwest of Minneapolis. At any given time, they grow over 12,000 grapevines, many of which are genetically different from each other. Some plants are 40 years old, while others are quite new, and they’ve been planted close to each other to see which one outperforms the others. “Plant rearing is really a plant-killing exercise,” Clark says. “We have a lot of empty space because we are constantly thinking about how to remove it. If a plant is susceptible to disease or does not survive the winter, this is an essential way out of the program.”
In late summer and early fall, researchers harvest grapes from plants that have survived, then take them indoors where a full-time college winemaker turns them into 100 unique batches of wine each year. Scientists analyze the chemical composition of wine, then use that information to inform their decisions about plant breeding the following spring in hopes of improving traits such as grape yield, fruit quality, wine quality, and disease resistance, among other things. One of the success stories of lab-growing grapes, for example, is a cultivar called Itasca, which scientists developed by crossing two hardy parents. The Itasca is “cooler than either parent,” Clark says, and has the added benefit of being resistant to some mold and pests. Creates a dry white wine with notes of honey, melon and violet.
They also use DNA testing to understand the source of desired traits in the grape genome so that they can select for those traits early in the breeding process. From the outset, DNA analysis confirms that the mother grapes carry the genes researchers are interested in, allowing them to choose the right cultivars or cultivars for pairing. When the offspring grow into seedlings, researchers use a DNA test to check for the correct characteristics and rule out plants they don’t expect to do well. “Getting rid of bad plants early in the process means we’re enriching the pool of good plants that will grow to produce fruit in four to six years,” Clark says.
Starting this fall, partly in response to extreme temperature fluctuations like those in Colorado and elsewhere, they will also begin incorporating technology that allows them to test the cold hardiness of grapes, in real time, at different stages of the growing process. The technique is already in use in some other laboratories around the country, and is known as differential thermal analysis, and it allows scientists to measure the tiny burst of heat that the grape buds emit when they finally freeze. This gives researchers a window into the inner workings of the variety, including the temperature at which it freezes at different times throughout the year, a reaction they believe is controlled by genes. In the long term, it should help them make strategic breeding decisions to produce plants that can better tolerate cold conditions.
And while climate change has always been a factor in decision-making, scientists and farmers say it looms larger with each passing year. Researchers are not choosing to adapt to the climate per se, but rather breeding grapes that can survive the effects of climate change. “Wine, when we stop and think about it, is really a luxury, but it has been such a big part of human life for thousands of years that it is inconceivable to think how we would proceed in a world without grapes,” Clark says.
However, hybrid grapes are not a panacea for everyone. For starters, they have a bad reputation among some old-time winemakers, who are convinced that hybrids will not produce the same high-quality wines as traditional European grapes. Many wine producers also believe that consumers simply will not buy wine made with unfamiliar grapes, especially older generations of grape drinkers. In addition, hybrids that grow well in experimental vineyards in one part of the country may completely flop in other areas. Plants may excel in one trait and fail in others. Researchers also spend painstakingly decades developing hybrids and, more or less, give their best guesses about what the future holds. The climate is now changing so rapidly that researchers and breeders have even more difficulty predicting which plant characteristics will prove most beneficial in the years to come. “This is the real problem with climate change, it’s not like the ball has stopped rolling – it’s rolling faster and faster,” says Jason Londo, a plant biologist at Cornell University. “When breeding for a very changing climate, something that takes many years to develop, we always play catch-up.”
Fortunately, the once-bad reputation of hybrid cars is starting to change, especially as enterprising millennials and General Zers start buying and drinking more wine. These consumers are less loyal to a particular traditional European grape than their parents; Younger buyers are also interested in the value hybrid cars can provide. This is good news for the wine industry because hybrids may be the only sustainable path forward in some wine-growing regions. If climate change continues, erratic weather patterns will continue to disrupt the wine industry, making it more difficult for farmers to grow the consistent, reliable crop they need to stay in business. And with more hybrids on the vineyards, winemakers who have been reluctant to use hybrids will need to feel more comfortable with the fruit if they also hope to stay relevant. “The only way we can survive in this industry is to adapt,” says Joe Flynn, a winemaker at Bloom Creek Winery in Palisade, Colorado. “Being in agriculture, we deal with what Mother Nature gives us, and if we try to fight and manipulate that, we will lose every time. We just have to take what we gave and make the best product we can use.”
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